REVIEW: The Maids | Sydney Theatre
Oh, Benedict, Benedict. You’ve defiled The Maids. Well, with a little bit of help from Andrew Upton, as co-translator. Then again, there’s only so much damage even you can do. I’m being flippant, of course. Nonetheless, the return of Benedict Andrews from no man’s land (or was it Iceland?) seems to me less than triumphant, on this evidence.
What was, of course, anticipated and touted as one of the highlights of Sydney’s 2013 theatre calendar failed to engage, on the whole. Not for want of trying. Maybe trying, too hard, was the problem.
A colleague of mine spoke recently of the “transparency” of Eamon Flack’s direction of Angels In America, an ambitious undertaking if ever there was one. He was referring to the fact Flack seems to feel no need to impose his stamp, or ego, on his work, other than by doing his job as well as he possibly can. There are no conceits, affectations or eccentricities superimposed on the work which shout the director’s name. No overt branding strategies. Andrews, if you ask me, could learn from this. Oh sure, I admire his chutzpah, coming back from the dead and resurrecting his toolbox, but the implements are hardly shiny or new anymore. They’re looking more than a little tarnished.
Striking as it is on first entering (largely by dint of dozens of faux flowers), Alice Babidge’s set looks like a chillingly sterile funeral parlour, rather than a wealthy woman’s apartment. Well, somewhere between a mortician’s and Madonna’s bedroom. There’s an elongated, superbly art directed rack of sumptuous clothes at the back of the stage which afford that association. It’s very compressed, too, this set, with precious little of the vertical dimension being exploited. Yes, there’s a point to the undertaking (if you’ll pardon the pun): The Maids, after all, is loosely based on the true story of the Papin sisters, who cold-bloodedly murdered their employer, in Le Mans, in 1933; but it’s too clinical and there are too many hard surfaces, an impression exacerbated by the wholesale use of mirrored panels. Again, yes, granted, this has a thematic relationship, since The Maids is very much concerned with selfhood and self-delusion, the myriad of personae that can inhabit but one human being. Still and all, I found it rather overwhelming, distracting; imposing on Genet’s plot and central ideas in a rather heavyhanded fashion, even if the rationale was to have us gaze fixedly upon them.
Nick Schlieper’s lighting, too, was for the most part starkly illuminating: LED-level brightness where incandescence would’ve been, I would’ve thought, de rigueur; as this play, surely, is more about illuminating shadows. After all, Genet ‘liked the darkness, even as a child’.
There’s no denying the luminosity of the stars. Catherine Elise Blanchett. Isabelle Huppert. And Great Gatsby principal, Elizabeth Debicki. Who wouldn’t be there? And, it seemed, almost everyone who’s anyone was, on opening night. But Cate and Isabelle are playing sisters. Cate has been directed, apparently, to apply a very proper, almost English way of speaking when her mistress is present and a coarser, broader, Aussie accent in private. Isabelle, however, is (inevitably, I suppose) stuck in her heavy, French onion soupy accent, which only but thickens when she’s speaking quickly or heat is applied to a scene. She’s a great actor, brimming with confidence, charisma and comedic skill, in particular, but much of her speech was entirely lost on me; it’s a good thing she was so physically expressive. She might as well have performed in French and, if Benedict was as anxious to be, or appear, ‘out there’, as I suppose, the whole play could’ve been in French.
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